F1 has its mojo back – just in time for Monaco’s super Saturday

Ferrari's Charles Leclerc goes fastest in practice for the Monaco Grand Prix on Frida
Ferrari's Charles Leclerc goes fastest in practice for the Monaco Grand Prix on Friday - Reuters/Benoit Tessier

Fernando Alonso summed up the Monaco experience rather well earlier this week. “Monaco is the best weekend of the year,” remarked the Spaniard. “Until Sunday.”

The Aston Martin driver was being a touch facetious. There have been some decent races in the principality – mostly rain-affected in the modern era, it has to be said.

But there is no denying that, of all the circuits in the world, Monaco is all about the build-up to the race.

Which is what makes Saturday’s qualifying session one of the most eagerly-anticipated in recent memory. For the first time in more than two years, we have a serious battle on our hands at the front of the grid. And the sport feels transformed.

You need only cast your mind back a few weeks to Shanghai, where Max Verstapppen won for a fourth time in five outings, to remember what it felt like; the grinding predictability.

Suddenly, no one has a clue what is going to happen. Lando Norris won in Miami for the first time in 110 outings. And he went close again in Imola.

Yes, Verstappen won again there (his fifth win in seven races). Yes, the Dutch driver has taken eight poles in a row. Yes, he might well take what would be a record ninth Saturday. But you would not bet the house on it. Even in Monte Carlo.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc topped practice on Friday, ending the day 0.188 seconds clear of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes. Yes, Lewis Hamilton. The lesser-spotted Mercedes actually had an encouraging day, with Hamilton – who was fastest in the morning session – describing it as “probably the best we’ve had so far this year”.

Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton during practice
Lewis Hamilton was second quickest in practice in Monaco - Reuters/Claudia Greco

Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso was third, 0.475sec off the pace, with Verstappen an unhappy fourth, complaining his car was “bouncing like a kangaroo”.

This was the third Friday in a row that the world champion had cut a frustrated figure. So far Red Bull have managed to find a solution to their problems, but something feels slightly amiss at the Milton Keynes team, an impression only reinforced by the sight of Adrian Newey, in his civvies in the Red Bull garage, watching his erstwhile colleagues go about their business.

Christian Horner was slightly touchy when asked yesterday about Red Bull’s ‘difficult’ weekend in Imola. “I mean, obviously Imola was a difficult weekend where we achieved pole position and a grand prix victory,” he noted. But he also acknowledged that the landscape had changed.

‘This race will be won in qualifying’

“It’s inevitable,” he said. “I mean, we’re in year three of these [technical] regulations, and it’s inevitable that you’re going to get convergence. It’s amazing that we’ve managed to stay ahead for so long. But as the cars converge in look and shape and therefore lap time, it’s inevitable that there’s going to be strong competition.

“So we fully expect that here in Monaco. It’s a unique layout on the calendar and of course, it’s all down to that one lap tomorrow afternoon. By and large, this race will be won tomorrow afternoon in qualifying.”

It is not always the case. Intriguingly, the driver taking pole has actually won only three times in the last eight Monaco grands prix, suffering something of a curse in recent seasons. Leclerc crashed after taking pole in 2021, eventually leading to a DNS, and managed to finish fourth despite taking pole the following year. But by and large it remains true. The cars these days are so big and heavy, you can barely fit two side-by-side.

Some believe that fact makes Monaco a waste of a space on the calendar. And it is true the sport should be trying to address Monaco’s lack of Sunday thrills. Horner said on Friday that the solution boiled down to either making the cars smaller (not going to happen in the short term) or altering the track to create an overtaking opportunity (not easy in a nation which is home to almost 40,000 people and where even millionaire F1 drivers are packed in like sardines).

But Monaco remains unique. It remains prestigious. It remains completely bonkers. And it remains the best Saturday of the season. This year’s is particularly intriguing, given the shifting dynamic amongst the grid’s leading teams. It is anyone’s guess who is going to take pole. And Formula One is all the better for it.